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Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion

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Vivienne Westwood outfit
Debby in Jubilee Outfit, from 1977 Seditionaries in 430 King s Road

“Punk was never chic,” insists Sid Vicious, “Never chic.” In this bit of footage, Sid lounges in a verdant green park, wearing a steel chain with a miniature padlock and a red t-shirt printed with a swastika. Sid’s protests were in vain. By the time of this interview, punk had become impossibly chic, thanks to Sid and his fellow Sex Pistols.

Vivienne Westwood and her partner, Malcolm McLaren, dressed, outfitted, and promoted the Sex Pistols. Westwood and McLaren both went to art school, and for the duo, the Sex Pistols represented both a marketing opportunity for Let It Rock, their boutique (later renamed Sex, Seditionaries and Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die), and a contemporary art project. Although Westwood did not invent Sid’s ragged poet maudit look, she refined its terms.

With input from McLaren and the band, Westwood also designed a good portion of the band’s stage costumes, putting Johnny Rotten (née John Lydon) in her infamous “bondage suit” and dressing the rest of the band in t-shirts screen-printed with swastikas and offensive slogans. A generation older than their band, Westwood and McLaren were “68-ers” with a self-declared affinity for the Situationist International. Westwood and McLaren have always claimed that these outfits (paired, often, with studs and leather, drawn from biker culture, but also all too reminiscent of Nazi military uniforms) carried a political valence. Both maintain that they appropriated these symbols in order to subvert them, to rub out their power. Still, they remained powerful and punk’s appropriation of swastikas and other bits of fascist paraphernalia spoke perhaps too loudly to certain political currents.

Yet in 1976, the Sex Pistols were simply “chic,” splashed across all the major news outlets. There they were, selling newspapers, embarrassing television talk show hosts, trashing the Queen on her Jubilee. After the Pistols imploded, Westwood, splitting with McLaren, went on to forge a career as a high fashion designer, staging fashion shows and designing both “couture” and diffusion lines. Only a small portion of the Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion exhibition, a retrospective of Westwood’s career, dates from her punk period. Her work, however, remains inextricably linked to Punk, and to the Sex Pistols. And it is this association with radical politics and with the avant-garde that lends Westwood artistic currency, setting her apart from Armani or Chanel. Like Elsa Schiaparelli, whose association with Surrealism placed her on the proper side of the line, Westwood’s clothing has been recast as art.

The exhibition, a lavish affair put together by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, is currently on view at the De Young Museum. The Westwood retrospective follows on the heels of several successful fashion exhibitions at major American museums, marking the increasingly hazy line between “design” and “art.” Like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2005 Chanel retrospective, the De Young’s new Westwood show boasts a stunning array of corporate backers and delivers a perspective that borders on hagiographic. In these exhibitions, designer dresses are presented as fine art. At the De Young, dark grey walls and dramatic lighting emphasize the objects’ value. Under the curator’s hands, Westwood becomes a fashion heroine, a woman whose experimental cuts and patterns never fail to deliver elegance and chic.

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As a child, Westwood remembers watching a woman, dressed in Christian Dior’s New Look, pass before her living-room window. It was 1947, and Westwood remembers that her mother called her to the window to watch this woman, in a “long coat down to her ankles,” walk down their country road. Under Dior’s hands, fabric was pinched, pulled, padded, pleated — purely for the love of excess, creating a silhouette that was feminine to an extreme. Like Punk, postwar fashion reveled in excesses and extremes. A dress could not simply accentuate a woman’s natural curves. Dior and his contemporaries built architectural peplums, sculpted the torso with corsets and girdles, swathed the lower body in layers of fabric, and created belled silhouettes through stiff crinolines.

After Punk, Westwood returned to her youth, and her Mini Crini collection (Spring/Summer 1985) marks the first collection that turns back to this vocabulary, suppressing the natural body for visual impact. Dior’s influence stayed with Westwood, and references to other designers from the postwar era, most notably Cristobal Balenciaga and Coco Chanel, abound in Westwood’s work from the past two decades. Balenciaga, according to the fashion historian Valerie Steele, created “abstract architecture around a woman’s body.” Clothes build structures around the body, as in the Chico jacket (Witches, Autumn/Winter 1984), where stiff horsehair shoulder points appear, like miniature towers, on wide, square-cut sleeves.

Westwood’s Metropolitan suit (from the Vive la Cocotte collection, Autumn/Winter 1995-6, and included in the De Young exhibition) underscores Westwood’s postwar influences. The jacket, with its padded and flared peplum, narrow waist, and darted bust-line, recall Dior’s 1947 “Le Bar” suit (Westwood studied the original in the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute). But Westwood also borrowed from seventeenth-century court dress and asked clients to wear a padded bra and a “cage-bustle” constructed out of metal wire beneath the suit. Westwood draws upon a fantasy of courtly culture (most notably, the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV) as a site of spectacle and display. The Harris Tweed collection (Autumn/Winter 1987-1988) pushes this visual exaggeration of femininity further. Westwood’s silhouette can be described as Dior’s New Look chopped at the knees. An enormous belled skirt exaggerates the woman’s hips, while the tailored upper body constrains the waist and draws attention to the breasts.

Vivienne Westwood’s designs bring punk and Dior together under one rubric. For Westwood, the two terms are compatible because they both draw upon an aesthetic of excess rendered marginal by modernity. Westwood’s career pulls together a mixture of references to l’ancien regime and Primitivism. Westwood’s work, like the counterculture that she claims, rests in an uneasy fulcrum point between the aristocratic and the primitive, both premodern, both rendered marginal by modernity (by capitalism and its structures). Punk carried something of dandyism’s exclusive stance. The punk, like the dandy, understands that clothing constitutes a language. By pushing and pulling at that language, by playing with grammar and syntax (wearing a rubber bondage suit on a commuter train to London, or adding holes to clothing where they did not belong), one can force that language to perform in new ways, in different ways. One can make a secret language legible only to the select. One can even force that language to express taboos.

Modern capitalism, as the art historian (and ex-Situationist) T. J. Clark has noted, has simply absorbed each succeeding wave of anti-modern activity. Abstract Expressionism, Clark argues, was a failure, despite its excesses, despite its best invocation of the poet maudit in the figure of Jackson Pollock. Capitalism seamlessly co-opted modernist art, so that Pollock’s wild drip paintings became the backdrops for a series of fashion spreads, photographed by Cecil Beaton for the March 1, 1951, issue of Vogue.

And so we have the Westwood retrospective. The swastika shirt has been tastefully shunted off to a dark corner. (It took me two trips to find it.) The text carefully averts the reader’s gaze, describing Westwood’s artful deconstruction of everyday items, and guiding viewers towards Johnny Rotten’s bondage suit. The swastika, for curatorial purposes, simply isn’t there. The exhibition moves quickly away from punk towards the designer’s current interest in British tailoring and eighteenth-century salon society. At the De Young, Westwood’s clothes live up to their role as spectacle. The clothes are always thoughtful, meticulously constructed, and visually interesting, and in a handful of cases, downright stunning. Yet Westwood, couturière, has come upon the same problem as the Sex Pistols in their heyday: how to keep “radical” apart from “chic”?

Vivenne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion will be on display at the De Young Museum from March 3 through June 10, 2007. For more information, visit: www.thinker.org.

“Punk was never chic,” insists Sid Vicious, “Never chic.” In this bit of footage, Sid lounges in a verdant green park, wearing a steel chain with a miniature padlock and a red t-shirt printed with a swastika. Sid’s protests were in vain. By the time of this interview, punk had become impossibly chic, thanks to Sid and his fellow Sex Pistols.

Vivienne Westwood and her partner, Malcolm McLaren, dressed, outfitted, and promoted the Sex Pistols. Westwood and McLaren both went to art school, and for the duo, the Sex Pistols represented both a marketing opportunity for Let It Rock, their boutique (later renamed Sex, Seditionaries and Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die), and a contemporary art project. Although Westwood did not invent Sid’s ragged poet maudit look, she refined its terms.

With input from McLaren and the band, Westwood also designed a good portion of the band’s stage costumes, putting Johnny Rotten (née John Lydon) in her infamous “bondage suit” and dressing the rest of the band in t-shirts screen-printed with swastikas and offensive slogans. A generation older than their band, Westwood and McLaren were “68-ers” with a self-declared affinity for the Situationist International. Westwood and McLaren have always claimed that these outfits (paired, often, with studs and leather, drawn from biker culture, but also all too reminiscent of Nazi military uniforms) carried a political valence. Both maintain that they appropriated these symbols in order to subvert them, to rub out their power. Still, they remained powerful and punk’s appropriation of swastikas and other bits of fascist paraphernalia spoke perhaps too loudly to certain political currents.

Yet in 1976, the Sex Pistols were simply “chic,” splashed across all the major news outlets. There they were, selling newspapers, embarrassing television talk show hosts, trashing the Queen on her Jubilee. After the Pistols imploded, Westwood, splitting with McLaren, went on to forge a career as a high fashion designer, staging fashion shows and designing both “couture” and diffusion lines. Only a small portion of the Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion exhibition, a retrospective of Westwood’s career, dates from her punk period. Her work, however, remains inextricably linked to Punk, and to the Sex Pistols. And it is this association with radical politics and with the avant-garde that lends Westwood artistic currency, setting her apart from Armani or Chanel. Like Elsa Schiaparelli, whose association with Surrealism placed her on the proper side of the line, Westwood’s clothing has been recast as art.

The exhibition, a lavish affair put together by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, is currently on view at the De Young Museum. The Westwood retrospective follows on the heels of several successful fashion exhibitions at major American museums, marking the increasingly hazy line between “design” and “art.” Like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2005 Chanel retrospective, the De Young’s new Westwood show boasts a stunning array of corporate backers and delivers a perspective that borders on hagiographic. In these exhibitions, designer dresses are presented as fine art. At the De Young, dark grey walls and dramatic lighting emphasize the objects’ value. Under the curator’s hands, Westwood becomes a fashion heroine, a woman whose experimental cuts and patterns never fail to deliver elegance and chic.

As a child, Westwood remembers watching a woman, dressed in Christian Dior’s New Look, pass before her living-room window. It was 1947, and Westwood remembers that her mother called her to the window to watch this woman, in a “long coat down to her ankles,” walk down their country road. Under Dior’s hands, fabric was pinched, pulled, padded, pleated — purely for the love of excess, creating a silhouette that was feminine to an extreme. Like Punk, postwar fashion reveled in excesses and extremes. A dress could not simply accentuate a woman’s natural curves. Dior and his contemporaries built architectural peplums, sculpted the torso with corsets and girdles, swathed the lower body in layers of fabric, and created belled silhouettes through stiff crinolines.

After Punk, Westwood returned to her youth, and her Mini Crini collection (Spring/Summer 1985) marks the first collection that turns back to this vocabulary, suppressing the natural body for visual impact. Dior’s influence stayed with Westwood, and references to other designers from the postwar era, most notably Cristobal Balenciaga and Coco Chanel, abound in Westwood’s work from the past two decades. Balenciaga, according to the fashion historian Valerie Steele, created “abstract architecture around a woman’s body.” Clothes build structures around the body, as in the Chico jacket (Witches, Autumn/Winter 1984), where stiff horsehair shoulder points appear, like miniature towers, on wide, square-cut sleeves.

Westwood’s Metropolitan suit (from the Vive la Cocotte collection, Autumn/Winter 1995-6, and included in the De Young exhibition) underscores Westwood’s postwar influences. The jacket, with its padded and flared peplum, narrow waist, and darted bust-line, recall Dior’s 1947 “Le Bar” suit (Westwood studied the original in the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute). But Westwood also borrowed from seventeenth-century court dress and asked clients to wear a padded bra and a “cage-bustle” constructed out of metal wire beneath the suit. Westwood draws upon a fantasy of courtly culture (most notably, the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV) as a site of spectacle and display. The Harris Tweed collection (Autumn/Winter 1987-1988) pushes this visual exaggeration of femininity further. Westwood’s silhouette can be described as Dior’s New Look chopped at the knees. An enormous belled skirt exaggerates the woman’s hips, while the tailored upper body constrains the waist and draws attention to the breasts.

Vivienne Westwood’s designs bring punk and Dior together under one rubric. For Westwood, the two terms are compatible because they both draw upon an aesthetic of excess rendered marginal by modernity. Westwood’s career pulls together a mixture of references to l’ancien regime and Primitivism. Westwood’s work, like the counterculture that she claims, rests in an uneasy fulcrum point between the aristocratic and the primitive, both premodern, both rendered marginal by modernity (by capitalism and its structures). Punk carried something of dandyism’s exclusive stance. The punk, like the dandy, understands that clothing constitutes a language. By pushing and pulling at that language, by playing with grammar and syntax (wearing a rubber bondage suit on a commuter train to London, or adding holes to clothing where they did not belong), one can force that language to perform in new ways, in different ways. One can make a secret language legible only to the select. One can even force that language to express taboos.

Modern capitalism, as the art historian (and ex-Situationist) T. J. Clark has noted, has simply absorbed each succeeding wave of anti-modern activity. Abstract Expressionism, Clark argues, was a failure, despite its excesses, despite its best invocation of the poet maudit in the figure of Jackson Pollock. Capitalism seamlessly co-opted modernist art, so that Pollock’s wild drip paintings became the backdrops for a series of fashion spreads, photographed by Cecil Beaton for the March 1, 1951, issue of Vogue.

And so we have the Westwood retrospective. The swastika shirt has been tastefully shunted off to a dark corner. (It took me two trips to find it.) The text carefully averts the reader’s gaze, describing Westwood’s artful deconstruction of everyday items, and guiding viewers towards Johnny Rotten’s bondage suit. The swastika, for curatorial purposes, simply isn’t there. The exhibition moves quickly away from punk towards the designer’s current interest in British tailoring and eighteenth-century salon society. At the De Young, Westwood’s clothes live up to their role as spectacle. The clothes are always thoughtful, meticulously constructed, and visually interesting, and in a handful of cases, downright stunning. Yet Westwood, couturière, has come upon the same problem as the Sex Pistols in their heyday: how to keep “radical” apart from “chic”?

Vivenne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion will be on display at the De Young Museum from March 3 through June 10, 2007. For more information, visit: www.thinker.org.

“Punk was never chic,” insists Sid Vicious, “Never chic.” In this bit of footage, Sid lounges in a verdant green park, wearing a steel chain with a miniature padlock and a red t-shirt printed with a swastika. Sid’s protests were in vain. By the time of this interview, punk had become impossibly chic, thanks to Sid and his fellow Sex Pistols.

Vivienne Westwood and her partner, Malcolm McLaren, dressed, outfitted, and promoted the Sex Pistols. Westwood and McLaren both went to art school, and for the duo, the Sex Pistols represented both a marketing opportunity for Let It Rock, their boutique (later renamed Sex, Seditionaries and Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die), and a contemporary art project. Although Westwood did not invent Sid’s ragged poet maudit look, she refined its terms.

With input from McLaren and the band, Westwood also designed a good portion of the band’s stage costumes, putting Johnny Rotten (née John Lydon) in her infamous “bondage suit” and dressing the rest of the band in t-shirts screen-printed with swastikas and offensive slogans. A generation older than their band, Westwood and McLaren were “68-ers” with a self-declared affinity for the Situationist International. Westwood and McLaren have always claimed that these outfits (paired, often, with studs and leather, drawn from biker culture, but also all too reminiscent of Nazi military uniforms) carried a political valence. Both maintain that they appropriated these symbols in order to subvert them, to rub out their power. Still, they remained powerful and punk’s appropriation of swastikas and other bits of fascist paraphernalia spoke perhaps too loudly to certain political currents.

Yet in 1976, the Sex Pistols were simply “chic,” splashed across all the major news outlets. There they were, selling newspapers, embarrassing television talk show hosts, trashing the Queen on her Jubilee. After the Pistols imploded, Westwood, splitting with McLaren, went on to forge a career as a high fashion designer, staging fashion shows and designing both “couture” and diffusion lines. Only a small portion of the Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion exhibition, a retrospective of Westwood’s career, dates from her punk period. Her work, however, remains inextricably linked to Punk, and to the Sex Pistols. And it is this association with radical politics and with the avant-garde that lends Westwood artistic currency, setting her apart from Armani or Chanel. Like Elsa Schiaparelli, whose association with Surrealism placed her on the proper side of the line, Westwood’s clothing has been recast as art.

The exhibition, a lavish affair put together by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, is currently on view at the De Young Museum. The Westwood retrospective follows on the heels of several successful fashion exhibitions at major American museums, marking the increasingly hazy line between “design” and “art.” Like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2005 Chanel retrospective, the De Young’s new Westwood show boasts a stunning array of corporate backers and delivers a perspective that borders on hagiographic. In these exhibitions, designer dresses are presented as fine art. At the De Young, dark grey walls and dramatic lighting emphasize the objects’ value. Under the curator’s hands, Westwood becomes a fashion heroine, a woman whose experimental cuts and patterns never fail to deliver elegance and chic.

As a child, Westwood remembers watching a woman, dressed in Christian Dior’s New Look, pass before her living-room window. It was 1947, and Westwood remembers that her mother called her to the window to watch this woman, in a “long coat down to her ankles,” walk down their country road. Under Dior’s hands, fabric was pinched, pulled, padded, pleated — purely for the love of excess, creating a silhouette that was feminine to an extreme. Like Punk, postwar fashion reveled in excesses and extremes. A dress could not simply accentuate a woman’s natural curves. Dior and his contemporaries built architectural peplums, sculpted the torso with corsets and girdles, swathed the lower body in layers of fabric, and created belled silhouettes through stiff crinolines.

After Punk, Westwood returned to her youth, and her Mini Crini collection (Spring/Summer 1985) marks the first collection that turns back to this vocabulary, suppressing the natural body for visual impact. Dior’s influence stayed with Westwood, and references to other designers from the postwar era, most notably Cristobal Balenciaga and Coco Chanel, abound in Westwood’s work from the past two decades. Balenciaga, according to the fashion historian Valerie Steele, created “abstract architecture around a woman’s body.” Clothes build structures around the body, as in the Chico jacket (Witches, Autumn/Winter 1984), where stiff horsehair shoulder points appear, like miniature towers, on wide, square-cut sleeves.

Westwood’s Metropolitan suit (from the Vive la Cocotte collection, Autumn/Winter 1995-6, and included in the De Young exhibition) underscores Westwood’s postwar influences. The jacket, with its padded and flared peplum, narrow waist, and darted bust-line, recall Dior’s 1947 “Le Bar” suit (Westwood studied the original in the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute). But Westwood also borrowed from seventeenth-century court dress and asked clients to wear a padded bra and a “cage-bustle” constructed out of metal wire beneath the suit. Westwood draws upon a fantasy of courtly culture (most notably, the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV) as a site of spectacle and display. The Harris Tweed collection (Autumn/Winter 1987-1988) pushes this visual exaggeration of femininity further. Westwood’s silhouette can be described as Dior’s New Look chopped at the knees. An enormous belled skirt exaggerates the woman’s hips, while the tailored upper body constrains the waist and draws attention to the breasts.

Vivienne Westwood’s designs bring punk and Dior together under one rubric. For Westwood, the two terms are compatible because they both draw upon an aesthetic of excess rendered marginal by modernity. Westwood’s career pulls together a mixture of references to l’ancien regime and Primitivism. Westwood’s work, like the counterculture that she claims, rests in an uneasy fulcrum point between the aristocratic and the primitive, both premodern, both rendered marginal by modernity (by capitalism and its structures). Punk carried something of dandyism’s exclusive stance. The punk, like the dandy, understands that clothing constitutes a language. By pushing and pulling at that language, by playing with grammar and syntax (wearing a rubber bondage suit on a commuter train to London, or adding holes to clothing where they did not belong), one can force that language to perform in new ways, in different ways. One can make a secret language legible only to the select. One can even force that language to express taboos.

Modern capitalism, as the art historian (and ex-Situationist) T. J. Clark has noted, has simply absorbed each succeeding wave of anti-modern activity. Abstract Expressionism, Clark argues, was a failure, despite its excesses, despite its best invocation of the poet maudit in the figure of Jackson Pollock. Capitalism seamlessly co-opted modernist art, so that Pollock’s wild drip paintings became the backdrops for a series of fashion spreads, photographed by Cecil Beaton for the March 1, 1951, issue of Vogue.

And so we have the Westwood retrospective. The swastika shirt has been tastefully shunted off to a dark corner. (It took me two trips to find it.) The text carefully averts the reader’s gaze, describing Westwood’s artful deconstruction of everyday items, and guiding viewers towards Johnny Rotten’s bondage suit. The swastika, for curatorial purposes, simply isn’t there. The exhibition moves quickly away from punk towards the designer’s current interest in British tailoring and eighteenth-century salon society. At the De Young, Westwood’s clothes live up to their role as spectacle. The clothes are always thoughtful, meticulously constructed, and visually interesting, and in a handful of cases, downright stunning. Yet Westwood, couturière, has come upon the same problem as the Sex Pistols in their heyday: how to keep “radical” apart from “chic”?

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Vivenne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion will be on display at the De Young Museum from March 3 through June 10, 2007. For more information, visit: www.thinker.org.

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